Meaningful work and/or job design?

A phrase in frequent use today is 'meaningful work'. See a 5 minute School of Life video How to Find Meaningful Work that gives a good take on the phrase. There's also a lot of talk about precarious work where much of the work is far from meaningful. See the International Labour Organisation 5 minute video on the rise of precarious work.

But today I'm sticking with 'meaningful work' because I've been asked whether 'we have any products on providing meaningful work that we can share with colleagues for them to consider and have an awareness of, to inform their thinking when designing business processes e.g. skill variety, task significance, autonomy, etc.' This is an intriguing challenge as it seems to suggest we can design job roles to deliver business processes in a way that lead to meaningful work by reference to a 'product', which I don't think is possible.

To make things easier(!?) I think we need to distinguish between 'job design' and 'meaningful work'. Job design is about 'the process of deciding on the contents of a job in terms of its duties and responsibilities, on the methods to be used in carrying out the job, in terms of techniques, systems and procedures, and on the relationships that should exist between the job holder and his superior subordinates and colleagues.' (Armstrong, M. (2011) How to manage people. London: Kogan Page). The CIPD in their Job Design Factsheet note that: 'Although in many organisations, formal job design is considered passe, there are clear advantages to it as part of an integrated approach to workforce strategy.' I agree there is a place for well designed jobs.

Interestingly, Michael Armstrong, two years later (2013) in his revised edition of the book, does not mention job design in his previously mechanistic terms. Instead he talks about developing job engagement by 'designing jobs that enable people to feel a sense of accomplishment, to express and use their abilities, and to exercise their own decision making powers.' He remarks that you can help job engagement by designing jobs that have interest, challenge, variety, autonomy, task significance and task identity and he offers 10 steps to engagement through job design. So here we have two 'products' on job design – the CIPD factsheet and Michael Armstrong's 10 steps. Neither talks about meaningful work. (There are multiple other similar job design 'products') but these illustrate.

Good job design by itself does not guarantee that the work it relates to is 'meaningful' to the job holder. Alain de Botton in his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work asks the question, 'When does a job feel meaningful?' and answers saying 'Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.' Matthew Crawford in his wonderful book (thoroughly recommended) Shop Class as Soul Craft, explores meaningful work as being part of the 'struggle for individual agency … we want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it.'

Meaningful work may or may not include conscious job design and it's not really within the employer's gift to 'provide' meaningful work. Employers can provide some of the conditions and context that support individuals in any desire they have for meaningful work. Individuals' attitude towards their work differ. For example, one hospital cleaner who worked on a wing with patients who were in comas started rearranging the artwork on their walls in the hopes of sparking their awareness. In doing this she was crafting her role to give her meaningful work and was in a context to be able to do that. Another hospital cleaner may have the same job design to deliver the same business process but view the work as simply a means of earning money and not craft it to give any meaning beyond the monetary. Or this second cleaner may not have a manager who would allow anything beyond achieving the cleaning objective.

To be a company where people feel they are doing meaningful work is what Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft, describes as 'the quest'.

Is your organisation on the meaningful work quest? Where does job design feature in it? Let me know.

Purging avoidable costs

What stuff do you have to do every day that is not your actual job? I was talking with a colleague the other day who has the job of finding out what this stuff is and working out a way of fixing it through technology so that we don't spend the day on activity that is taking time from getting the job done.

He wasn't looking at stuff that the powers that be think you shouldn't be doing – like looking at your Facebook page although that could be useful too (sometimes the powers that be get things wrong). He was looking at what I call 'avoidable costs'. One example is single sign on i.e. A user authentication process that permits a user to enter one name and password in order to access multiple applications.

In organisations that don't have single sign-on think how much time is wasted in the process of
a) creating a new password every 12 weeks that has to include upper case, lower case, numbers, letters, symbols and be between 12 – 20 characters for multiple applications
b) going through the password retrieval/reset process when you forget what the password is because you forgot to write it down or can't remember where you did write it down – we are not supposed to write down passwords but most of us don't have a photographic memory and I don't think we have a password keeper – but I could spend time checking that.

My list of avoidable organisational costs includes any activity that involves form filling, authorization processes, policies and workarounds. Although many of these could be tackled by LEAN techniques these rarely question the underlying validity of the process or policy. Acting in more in favour of 'better sameness' LEAN and similar continuous improvement methods aren't likely to ask the bigger question of 'Are we holding onto something that is no longer relevant or necessary? (See my blog on horseholding).

It's hard to purge an accepted business activity but it can be done. Accenture worked out that their performance management process costs much more to deliver than it is possible to show it adds value so they are ditching their current process in favour of something completely different. (As have/are several other big name companies).

Some organisations are starting to purge the avoidable costs of a employing a human workforce, introducing robots and other technologies. A speech given by Andy Haldane, Bank of England on 12 November 2015 gives a full and startling picture of the extent to which this is happening which was summarized in headlines such as 'Robots threaten 15m UK jobs, says Bank of England's chief economist'

As I started to think about organisational avoidable costs I also started to think about personal/individual ones. There are many books on personal organisation – I wrote about Marie Kondo's one. It seems that the same principles that Marie Kondo et al ask individuals to apply in their lives could also be applied to organisations. Here's an example of what one individual learned from Marie Kondo's book which is equally relevant to organisations:

Tackle Categories, Not Rooms. Applied to organisations this covers looking at activities across the whole organisation rather than within silos. See Gillian Tett's book The Silo Effect on this topic.
Rediscover Your Style. Organisations that divest of sidelines they've acquired are applying this principle also known as 'stick to the knitting'. See this article for some examples.
Nostalgia Is Not Your Friend organisations that look to the past rather than staying alert to future trends fall by the wayside. A recent often quoted example is Kodak. Nokia and Blockbuster are others.
It feels so good to purge Organisations that are able to purge of avoidable costs, keeping transforming, and staying alert and responsive to future trends are few and far between. The UK's John Lewis is one example.

What's your view on organisational and individual avoidable costs? Rather than trying to reduce them should we be purging them and to what extent? Let me know.

Manager as coach

I've just been reflecting on my running year as on December 6 I reached my target of running one 10k race per month. So that's 12 races. Unfortunately instead of achieving my related goal of improving my speed in each race the reverse happened. I've got slower each time. Thus, I hit the target and missed the point – all too common in organisational/individual performance measures.

So, I know the required drill. In myself as my manager role I've put myself in the bottom corner of the 9-box grid. This is the dreaded 'must improve' category. Am I about to exit running or be exited from it?

No, I tell my manager (me). The reasons why I'm in this box are easy enough to list. They include: a) no practice or even much running between races b) no supportive community of runners to practice and/or run with c) concentrating on the objective i.e. run 12 10k races, and not on the desired outcome: to improve race time incrementally.

But I'm annoyed and demotivated by the bottom box rating. I achieved the target if not the outcome. I think my manager (me) could try a different tack to motivate me to improve my running. After all she knows the many reasons why the 9-box grid is a questionable method of performance improvement. (See my blog on this).

What I need to do then is help my manager (me) to be more effective at her role. She too doesn't really believe in the 9-box grid as a motivational tool but like many managers I think she thought she could 'drive' my performance by setting a quantitative target. (Perhaps some language adjustment is in order. She needs to re-read How the way we talk can change the way we work by Kegan and Lacey). I think she should be more of a coach.

In a recent HBR article You Can't Be a Great Manager If You're Not a Good Coach the author says the single most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is coaching and goes on to say that that to motivate people you manage means coaching and encouraging them, not just setting tasks.

In the running world runners do have coaches trained to encourage and develop performance. In fact, to be a running coach takes 12 months of training. So I need to retrain myself as my manager to take on a more coaching role. How would this play out? The coaching article mentioned above offers 5 tips for starting coaching conversations:

1. Listen deeply: the suggestion is to start with an open question e.g. 'What would help you get the outcome you're after', and then listen carefully to the responses
2. Ask, don't tell: As responses come the advice is to encourage the person to develop their own path to the outcome
3. Create and sustain a developmental alliance: Once this is agreed you give the person the autonomy and wherewithal to move forward
4. Focus on moving forward positively: When the person experiences set backs the manager as coach should help the person look for ways of moving past these
5. Build accountability: it is the person's role to take the actions and self-monitor progress and not the manager's

In myself as my manager role I will act on these tips to take on a more coaching role of myself as runner. I'm confident that during 2016 I will achieve my new outcome based goal of incrementally improve my running speed and with myself as coaching manager move myself out of the must improve box.

What's your view the 'bottom box'? Can a coaching style of management improve performance better than a task driven style? Let me know.

The customer label

I'm surrounded by people working on the customer experience, the customer journey, customer insight and analysis, high touch and low touch customers, customer service standards, customer relationship management and generally all things customer. So I was struck by a placard I came across that reads: We are students not customers.

It was a great challenge to my thinking. I looked up 'customer' to get a definition: 'A party that receives or consumes products (goods or services) and has the ability to choose between different products and suppliers. (See also buyer)'.

I guess students do have the ability to choose between different products and suppliers – and higher education institutions are racing to keep up with the notion that we can marketise higher education. (See the The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer for a number of views on this).

But what if we call someone a 'customer' but they don't really have the ability to choose between different products and suppliers. Think of all the instances where the word 'customer' has replaced a perfectly serviceable noun: patient, guest, passenger, resident, borrower (librarys), claimant (of benefits), colleague (as in'colleagues as customers') where the person's ability to choose is in many cases limited at best. Now think of the nouns that could be replaced by the word 'customer' but aren't: for example, asylum seeker, plaintiff, prisoner (many of them are repeat 'buyers') and service users. On what basis are we making the choice of calling someone a customer and what does the label mean in terms of organisation design?

In a short editorial on academic library 'customers' the author points out that 'the label that is attached to people interacting with services is influential in how these services are shaped', a point well made. A different researcher talking about social work goes further noting that labels of social work 'customers' have included 'patients', 'clients', 'customers', 'consumers', 'experts by experience' and 'service users'. He says that, 'These different labels are very important, as they all conjure up differing identities identifying differing relationships and differing power dynamics. … All these labels may be used to describe those who use social services, but all of them describe this relationship differently, with differing nuances and differing assumptions about the nature of the relationship'.

Whether or not there are direct, indirect, or no payments for goods/services received it seems that in many contexts viewing people through a customer lens brings with it a set of assumptions that are problematic in both design and delivery of the 'product' (goods or services)'. Going back to the student example and the marketisation of Higher Education there is a view that this trend could lead (is already leading?) to the 'constraining of creativity in learning and teaching [and] the need for education to be challenging, perspective-broadening, and ultimately about personal growth. Patrick McGhee reinforces this point saying, 'Seeing students as customers in the traditional sense narrows our perceptions of them, the potential for their relationship with their university and the kind of help from which they would benefit.' (See also Keith M. Parsons, Students Are Not Customers)

In changing the label from 'student' to 'customer' we change the design of higher education. I haven't done enough research yet to confirm/deny my emerging view that applying the customer label without due thought to the context and consequences is something we should be very cautious of as we do our organisation design work.

What's your view of the customer label? Should we be cautious of using it in our organisation design work? Let me know.

Rituals, relationships and restrictions (1)

A while ago Rosa, my daughter, sent me a link to a powerful and moving talk by Taiye Selasi. Her (Taiye Selasi's) bio reads: born in london raised in boston lives in new york new delhi rome writes stories essays scripts + books makes pictures still + moving.

Selasi's talk is about rituals, relationships, and restrictions and how in her view these three things are what help define someone. Thinking of ourselves and others in these contexts rather than by nationality, race, gender, or other labels that get used for pigeonholing each other allows the emergence and recognition of a very different, and much more helpful, picture of someone's life, identity, and experiences.

Her talk came to mind last week when we celebrated my mother, Rosie's, 99th birthday in the usual UK traditional, ritualistic way. (Encyclopaedia Britannica describes 'ritual' as 'the performance of ceremonial acts prescribed by tradition'). She got birthday cards and gifts from well-wishers. She invited people to a lunch party with her. At this she had a cake with candles – and we are fortunate that they now make numerals and we didn't have to have 99 individual ones on the cake – we sang 'Happy Birthday', popped party poppers, and so on. As one of the 'ceremonial acts', she was invited to blow out the candles and cut the first slice of cake.

What made the lunch huge fun with a lot of laughter was the web of relationships around the table. We were a mixed crew – age, nationality, religion, experience, gender, politics – of family and friends, united in this birthday ritual by the fact that each of us has a relationship with Rosie.

But what was also striking were the restrictions inherent in this birthday ritual, and the relationships around Rosie. In her talk Selasi explains restrictions saying: 'By restrictions, I mean, where are you able to live? What passport do you hold? Are you restricted by, say, racism, from feeling fully at home where you live? By civil war, dysfunctional governance, economic inflation, from living in the locality where you had your rituals as a child?'

Rosie is restricted by her capacity to walk, hear clearly, see well, and by numerous other restrictions that aging imposes. She desperately misses sailing, riding her bicycle, being able to read poetry, and having the mental acumen to argue her political and religious corner. Yet no stranger coming to the table could miss seeing her as the strong, independent, social activist she was in her earlier years.

Taking this notion of rituals, relationships and restrictions onwards into organisational life I am wondering how they play out. If we think there is an analogy between individual identity and organisational identity which is about "who we are" or "who we want to be" as an organisation then would it be more useful to think about organisational identity in terms of our organisational rituals, relationships, and restrictions rather than in terms of work processes, hierarchies, and governance?

If we did we might get a very different view of who we are as an organisation and who we want to be. What's your view? Let me know.

Three assumptions about work

I was listening to Andy Hines speaking the other day. He describes himself as an 'academic futurist' (great job title, I think). He's written an article 'A Dozen Surprises About the Future of Work'. In the session he focused on the surprise that 'workers prefer working to live instead of living to work', a concept he developed in the paper 'The end of work as we know it'. He suggested three key assumptions about work and asked us to consider our position on these:

1 Work is central to individual identity
I thought this a pretty interesting assumption as it came hot on the heels of my own team who in our weekly report, the challenges section, posted: 'trying to stop Naomi working on her annual leave.' This is not the first time they have challenged my work patterns but in my case my work is central to my individual identity and it is also a personal interest –I'm fascinated by the complexity of organisational functioning and I'm very fortunate to have paid employment for what I love doing. However, according to Almuth McDowall, a researcher on work/life balance 'Most of us aspire to have our work and personal sphere 'in sync' and balance has become the buzzword … in an ideal world, most people would like their output assessed by the results they achieve at work and not by the hours they spend slaving away at their desk, which in turn would leave them free to pursue their personal interests outside work'. By this definition 'personal interests' are not work. This is an assumption worth challenging.

2 Work structures daily life
I do think work structures daily life. I was talking with a friend the other day who was laid off a year ago and has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to find paid work. Job hunting structures her daily life and she is working hard at finding a job. Regardless of payment work structures daily life – ironing for example is unpaid if we do it ourselves and paid if we employ someone to do it. In both cases it is work and has to be planned into our day. I think it is difficult to challenge this assumption if we take as a definition of work that it is 'an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result'.

3 Work is a primary source of income
In western society unless you have inherited wealth or are retired on a pension (in which case your work was a primary source of income in most cases) or you are on social security benefits of some type then work – as a money generator – is a primary source of income. In this case you are using a definition of work along the lines of 'an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical or mental effort to do, usually for money' But is 'income' only about money?

This is an interesting one. In many workplaces talented people are bartering their talent for a work package that they want – fewer hours, flexible hours, working off site, etc. Money is not a primary driver for working. Their 'income' includes non-monetary benefits. Is the definition of 'income' changing and is it fine that talented and sought after people with scarce skills can barter for the income (monetary and non-monetary) they seek?

What about other talented people whose skills are equally necessary but less valued: nursing and care working are cases in point? Many are unable to get a money income that sustains them let alone an additional non-money income. (Read the 'living wage' debate – in the UK Parliament here. Scroll down to 3.15 p.m). The complexity around this assumption is the relationship of reward to effort/skill in the workplace.

So, what is 'work'? Is it linked to identity? Does it structure daily life? Is it a primary source of income? What's your position on these 3 assumptions about work? How does your position inform your organisation design practice? Let me know.

Consulting: aloofness versus collusion

It hadn't really struck me before Thursday last week that the supervision of consultants is 'a good thing'. A few years ago David Birch and Erik de Haan wrote a piece arguing that ' consulting supervision is a distinctive field in its own right, significantly different to coaching supervision and in some ways richer.'

They suggest that the richness is due to a complexity stemming from consultants who work within 'an organisation while holding on to their outsider's perspective. Yet, as they engage with the client system, they gradually acquire an insider's perspective on the organisation's issues. Such a stance of being an 'outsider within' is not straightforward at all and carries with it all sorts of temptations, risks and limitations. On the one hand, there is a risk that staying overly analytical and detached may result in observations, ideas and solutions that are more relevant for the consultant – or for his previous clients – than for the case in point. On the other hand, consultants risk becoming over-involved if they identify too strongly with the organisation's agenda and issues, and can fall into the trap of trying to 'manage' the situation. One could call this the dilemma of 'aloofness versus collusion'.

What a great phrase 'aloofness versus collusion' and that's more or less what we discussed in our second group supervision session last week. It's an acute issue for particularly for internal consultants – as our team is – caught between aiming to develop their careers as an insider to an organisation and acting as 'critical friend' and challenger as an outsider to it. This is compounded by the fact that internal consultants are often more hierarchically junior to the people they are consulting to/with and they have perceived lower status than external consultants. It's often easier (less career limiting?) to collude than to challenge.

External consultants – whatever their age and position within their own organisation's hierarchy -have credibility just by virtue of being external. They can maintain an appropriate level of aloofness because they are not 'one of us' but we are willing to listen to, and even act on, what they say. They don't need to collude in the same way – though in my experience if they are employed as an outside voice to tell people what the client doesn't want to then they do collude.

The discussion of aloofness versus collusion for us started with our own individual wrestles with it. At our supervisor's suggestion, he used the ideas of Proctor (1986) to consider our various projects. Proctor's framework sees the supervisor acting to support individual consultant development through 3 lenses:

  • normative – the supervisor accepts (or more accurately shares with the supervisee) responsibility for ensuring that the supervisee's work is professional and ethical, operating within whatever codes, laws and organisational norms apply
  • formative – the supervisor acts to provide feedback or direction that will enable the supervisee to develop the skills, theoretical knowledge, personal attributes and so on that will mean the supervisee becomes an increasingly competent practitioner
  • supportive (Proctor calls this restorative) – the supervisor is there to listen, support, confront the supervisee when the inevitable personal issues, doubts and insecurities arise – and when client issues are 'picked up' by the supervisee

What this led to was a different and rich conversation about our internal consulting function as a whole – how are we organised? Where can we add most value? Are we located in a good structural position in the organisation? What is our 'offer'?

The same issues of aloofness versus collusion arise at a functional level. Are we seen as too aloof and how do we stop the function simply colluding in delivering what the leaders want? We already know that internal consultancy is organisationally uncertain and often difficult to sustain as a function – does a desire to survive encourage a tendency to collusion? Collectively we left with these questions (one which a paper from the Cass Business School looks at this in more depth).

What I'm wondering is whether the skills of supervising individual consultants personal development could be reframed and/or applied to supervising the development of an internal consulting function that operates in a strong, credible and independent way without being aloof or collusive.

What are your views on this topic? Let me know.

Three books worth reading on the topic: